My grandmother had so little interest in the past that it used to frustrate me beyond belief. Here was a woman who was born in the era of horse-drawn carriages and she lived long enough to witness man’s landing on the moon.
I longed to hear her stories about horses delivering ice in San Francisco, or even what it was like to prevent her son—my father—from an early death in the influenza epidemic of 1919. Or anything at all from her rich background
But she had no interest in the “good old days.” Instead, she preferred to talk about how she didn’t trust Richard Nixon, or even more—why I wasn’t getting better grades in college.
“History means nothing,” she once told me. “Look at the Romans. They still talk about how great their civilization was. I’ve been there and it means nothing. What have they done lately?”
Her pique would reach new heights if she were alive today. Nostalgia permeates our public dialogue and she would not like it one little bit.
First, you have the conservatives. Grandma would have had little tolerance for today’s Republicans, the ones who want to go back in time to a more sedate social order. It was a simpler time, but that’s just code for inequality and prejudice, something that grandma would have never accepted.
Or, they constantly invoke the name of Ronald Reagan, whose policies in the 1980s seemed like a throwback even then.
But then there’s the other side. Call it Liberal Nostalgia, a most surprising development in our political system.
During this most upsetting period of political gridlock, Democrats couldn’t keep from wishing to go back to another day—the days of 90 percent income taxes, of big government. Poor Barack Obama – he’s been such a disappointment to those who thought he’d be the second coming of Franklin Roosevelt. Or Lyndon Johnson. Or John F. Kennedy. Or even Dwight D. Eisenhower, that caretaker of the ’50s.
As journalist Michael Barone wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “Liberals pine for what I call America’s Midcentury moment. It was the product of World War II, lasting from 1940 until the mid-1960s when the wartime experience wore off and the emerging baby boomers led culture and politics in another direction.”
That’s the fix we’re in. Republicans are fixated on Ronald Reagan and the ’80s – which itself was a period of nostalgia. Democrats are harkening back to FDR and JFK and LBJ.
My grandma would not like this. “What are you going to do today or tomorrow?”
The past, she would say, is over and done with.
Santa Cruz folks, in particular, are particularly reluctant to give up the past. No-growth activists don’t want any new sources of water, and they demand that the government not even consider a technology such as desalination.
Or, they want to deny the need for a wider Highway 1—it should remain the same four-lane highway that’s been around for 60 years. There are even those who would have you not tear down a dilapidated apartment building called the La Bahia on Beach Street.
I probably have more sympathy for this attitude than grandma would have. In her world, the future was welcoming, a place of excitement. What was there to fear?
That’s not how people are today. The future now seems scary. There’s no guarantee that things are going to get better.
The irony is that our lives have gotten better as time has gone by. We have a technological and information revolution. We have iPods and iPads and smart phones. Everybody owns a television— or five—and we can pick up cheap food at a farmers’ market. My grandma had to do her laundry on a washboard – but today it’s all done with the press of a button.
Why are we so worried about the future? Why are liberals and conservatives both yearning to go back to another era?
I think my grandma would grab us all by the ear—one at a time—and give us a lecture. It would go something like this: “Do something with your life. There’s more opportunity now than ever before. Education is available to anyone who wants it. I never had the chance to go to college, but more people do today. Stop being scared of everything. The future holds good things if you want them. Stop crying about change. Stop living in the past.”
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